Wednesday, December 17, 2014

History Man: The Life of R.G. Collingwood by Fred Inglistorre



Book under review

The merits of Amazon, online shopping, and e-books certainly deserves debate and consideration. How does an e-book differ from paper in how we perceive and appreciate a book? And will paper bookstores eventually die out under pressure from giants like Amazon? All good questions, but for me, here, now, it’s a lifesaver. Instead of the serendipity of the bookshelf, a computer algorithm led me to this and many other books. “R.G. Collingwood” as a search subject gave me not only Collingwood’s works, but this biography as well. Also, while I could not browse the whole thing, I did download the sample and learn that the work intrigued me. Ah, not-so-dumb luck is my friend! 

Inglis, a fellow Brit academic with a wide array of interests and publications, proves himself an excellent biographer of the elusive figure R.G. Collingwood. As befits Collingwood, Inglis eschews a cut-and-paste biography, opting instead to comment upon Collingwood’s work, thought, and intellectual progeny in addition to recounting the events of his life. The outline of Collingwood’s life is fairly simple, although his youth already raises possibilities. His parents were disciples of their Lake District neighbor, John Ruskin. Collingwood grew up with a musical mother and a father who pursued archeology, writing, and folklore. As a youth, Collingwood was off to Rugby school and then Oxford. Following the tradition of the time, he was immersed in the classics of Greece and Rome and the Western tradition as a whole. He graduated before the outbreak of the War, and (happily for him and us), he served in Naval Intelligence in London rather than in the trenches. After the War, he returned to Oxford and served as a professor of philosophy. He remained (broadly speaking) within the British idealist tradition, seemingly out of step with the likes of Russell, Wittgenstein (at least of the Tractatus), Ayer, and the logical positivists. Despite his relative isolation, and his devotion to archeology—he was active in excavating Roman ruins in Britain and elsewhere—he received an endowed chair at Oxford in the early 30s. 

While at the peak of his powers, Collingwood began suffering serious health problems caused foremost by uncontrolled high blood pressure. He became aware that he’d not lead a long life. This, along with the unfolding events in Europe (Nazism and Fascism), and a breakdown of his marriage, led him to become as a man possessed, going on a writing and publishing frenzy before his death in January 1943. Alas, he was not able to bring his greatest work (or certainly most influential) work to publication, The Idea of History, but it did get published in 1946 as a part of his large output in the last decade of his life.
Collingwood's best known work

Inglis takes us through these events, almost making the transformation of the man appear before our very eyes. In the early years, Collingwood comes across as unexceptional, almost bland. But then he brings forth a torrent of unique and important thoughts on history, art, and Nature, as well as on current events. One of my few complaints is that Inglis, probably from a lack of access to more personal sources, doesn’t delve deeply into the breakdown of his first marriage and subsequent marriage and fatherhood (again) on what was, as he knew, very near his deathbed. I can’t help but wonder about this, not as a matter of prurient interest, but as to how a man of deep and profound thought (his chair was in moral philosophy) thought (or didn’t) through these issues. But this is a minor thing, because Inglis does more than justice to Collingwood’s professional life and publications. 

For anyone interested in or wondering about Collingwood, I can’t imagine a better place to start. Collingwood isn’t a rock star of philosophy like Russell, Wittgenstein, or Ayer, to name but three fellow British academics, but his influence, especially in the realm of history, has been great indeed. Inglis explores his influence on Charles Taylor, Peter Winch, Quentin Skinner, and Alastair McIntyre, among others. (I’d add Owen Barfield and John Lukacs). In doing so, Inglis provides a running commentary not only on Collingwood but also on its relation to the world around us that I appreciated and enjoyed very much. 

Following are quotes that I excerpted from the book, a Cliff Notes of sorts of important points that I took from this most engaging book about this rather extraordinary man. 

From History Man:



The moral point of a biography is not to add a figure to some gallery of model lives for imitation, but to take from the bequests of the past lines of force for transformation.
Inglis, Fred (2009-07-06). History Man: The Life of R. G. Collingwood (p. 62). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition, citing Perry Anderson, Arguments within English Marxism (London: Verso, 1980), 98.


There is never much point, whether in aesthetic or philosophic criticism, in arguing for coherent patterns of thought in the life’s work of a thinker or a poet. The history of all thought is broken up into new starts, blind alleys, reactionary retreats, fake advances, whether in one person’s work or in a collective movement. Yet in a life, as in an epoch, we search out form and direction. A biography is an attempt to place a life against a moral horizon, to frame it with its recognisable landmarks and pathways.
Id. p. 81


My plan was to concentrate on the question, “What is Aristotle saying and what does he mean by it?” and to forgo, however alluring it might be, the further question “Is it true?”
Id. 86, quoting Collingwood, Autobiography [A] (27)


[Y]ou cannot find out what a man means by simply studying his spoken or written statements, even though he has spoken or written with perfect command of language and perfectly truthful intention. In order to find out his meaning you must also know what the question was (a question in his own mind, and presumed by him to be in yours) to which the thing he has said or written was meant as an answer. It must be understood that question and answer, as I conceived them, were strictly correlative. A proposition was not an answer, or at any rate could not be the right answer, to any question which might have been answered otherwise. . . . “you cannot tell what a proposition means unless you know what question it is meant to answer. . . . No two propositions . . . can contradict one another unless they are answers to the same question.”
Id. 88-89, quoting RGC


If we do not learn from the past—“ and we cannot otherwise learn at all”—we merely practise what Collingwood called “pseudo-history,” a wandering narrative in which there is no conception of purpose, and therefore no exercise of mind.
Id. 155, quoting Skinner, Visions of Politics, vol. 1, 89.


[I]n his best-known aphorism “all history is the history of thought,” which he took to mean that political theory is not an interminable anecdote summarising a sequence of remarks on politics made by consecutive theorists— by seven league boots from Plato to Nato, as the old joke has it— but is “the thought which occupies the mind of a man engaged in political work: the formation of a policy, the planning of means to execute it, the attempt to carry it into effect, the discovery that others are hostile to it, the devising of ways to overcome their hostility, and so forth.”
Id. 155, quoting RGC


For Churchill’s rhetoric in the House of Commons in 1940 turned precisely on the uncertain morale of his listeners, in the House and in the nation. That rhetoric was inseparable from the reasons for his policies. Reason and rhetoric were at one.
Id. 155-156


Knowledge for the historian is not the ordering and verification of propositions and statements, but the derivation of these from questions to which they serve as answers.
            Id. 156


[W]hat Collingwood commends is not so much a method or a technique for the historian of thought to follow as it is an understanding he or she will command of the constitution of the knowledge arrived at. What we know is constitutive of ourselves: historical self-knowledge (the construction of the Roman wall, the construction of Marx’s Capital, the decline and fall of the British Empire) goes towards the statutes of the human constitution.
            Id. 157


The history of art, the history of metaphysics, the history of the Roman wall are the same kinds of intellectual venture , and we shall only summon up the temerity to face down Collingwood’s terrific disdain when we add to the question-and-answer complex the necessity to determine enough of what the original agents felt as part of their thought. For it will become a premise of our revisions of Collingwood that all history is the history of thought inseparable from the moral sentiments that give it form.
Id. 158


Fifteen or so years later and after Collingwood’s death, eighty miles east of Oxford, Wittgenstein was inaugurating his revolution in philosophy from a bare room above Trinity Street, Cambridge . His racy, conversational wisdom matches with a startling likeness Collingwood’s ideas couched in such a very different idiom, though by a not dissimilar man.. “ So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false”— It is what human beings say that is true and false; and they agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in form of life.. If language is to be a means of communication there must be agreement not only in definitions but also (queer as this may sound) in judgements. This seems to abolish logic but does not do so. It is one thing to describe methods of measurement, and another to obtain and state results of measurement. Hence the sociability of inquiry, the congeniality of judgement, the intractability of truth.
Id. 158-159


It is a point to labour, as being the very purpose of writing a fully historical biography; one, that is, that manages to re-create how a life was lived and then takes its moral measure again, two generations later. The mind searches for a style (in Nietzsche’s usage), shaped and reshaped by certain passions, which it struggles to make congenial to thought, and applies this style to the comprehension of its experience and the knowledge it will yield.
            Id. 192


 “History . . . cannot avoid the character of thought,” the inevitability of human judgement turns the mere succession of events into a world, and not only a world in implying a narrative, “but a world of ideas.” Oakeshott’s historian is a scholar rather than a plain person, a scholar putting herself or himself under the stern discipline never to suppose that the past is like the present, but one for whom the knowability of the past moves it into the present, renders it mobile and changeable, varying as the evidence for it increases, obliging us to interpret and believe it differently.
            Id. 194


A principle, rather, is an originary bearing provided for the mind; it is a primary orientation for thought; it is formative of the faculty of reasoning on a particular subject and as such will vary from time to time. Insofar as a body of principles provides a foundation for coherent thinking, it is not a foundation one can get to the bottom of (“After that, it is elephants all the way down”). The absoluteness of its presupposition is shadowy and guarded.In the play of principles, the passions form and inform the understanding. Passion has always been a difficulty for philosophers, and even Descartes’ great essay on The Passions of the Soul while paying homage to their power, leaves him with the old dualism, passion and reason.
                            Id. 209


As the image of a personal God recedes from the Western academies, so too does the feasibility , let alone the desirability, of the “view from nowhere.” If all moral and intellectual meditation and judgement must take place somewhere, and that somewhere is the spot on which the thinker lives and thinks, then having thought (including the re-enactment of the thoughts of others) sufficient unto the day will not be best accomplished by trying to expunge all feeling. It will be a matter of having the feelings best suited to the occasion in which one finds oneself. The hermeneutician seeks for those feelings that best enfold or comprehend the (historical) experience in view. Right feeling and just interpretation unite in a single action of mind.
            Id. 209


The historian’s picture of his subject, whether that subject be a sequence of events or a past state of things, thus appears as a web of imaginative construction stretched between certain fixed points provided by the statements of his authorities; and if these points are frequent enough and the threads spun from each to the next are constructed with due care, always by the a priori imagination and never by merely arbitrary fancy, the whole picture is constantly verified by appeal to these data, and runs little risk of losing touch with the reality which it represents.
           Id. 211, quoting Collingwood, The Idea of History [IH], 241-242


The good historian and the fictional detective think alike. From indications of the most suggestive kind— not so much the given as the found— each constructs an imaginary picture of what happened, an event conceived as the expression of the thoughts of those who acted it out. The facts, such as they are, are placed in an interpretative order by historian or detective. Their validation is consequence of the narrator’s plausibility and imaginative forcefulness. The sources, the facts, or— such a final-sounding word— the data are only as good as the historical hermeneutician can make them. “The a priori imagination which does the work of historical construction supplies the means of historical criticism as well.” [IH 245] Thus the usual opposition between criticism and creation is dissolved. As imaginative works of art, novel and history are indistinguishable. As a mode of thought with its own principles, however, the history must be truthful, and its story must be true.
Id. 212


The historian . . . is investigating not mere events (where by a mere event I mean one which has only an outside and no inside) but actions . . . his main task is to think himself into this action, to discern the thought of its agent. . . . For history, the object to be discovered is not the mere event, but the thought expressed in it. To discover that thought is already to understand it. . . . The history of thought, and therefore all history, is the re-enactment of past thought in the historian’s own mind. . . . It is not a passive surrender to the spell of another’s mind; it is a labour of active and therefore critical thinking. The historian not only re-enacts past thought, he re-enacts it in the context of his own knowledge and therefore, in re-enacting it, criticises it, forms his own judgement of its value, corrects whatever errors he can discern in it.”
            Id. 213-216


So it is, I remind my readers, that a biography is always in danger of becoming mere description, of forgetting the old saw of creative writing classes, “show, don’t tell,” of failing Henry James’s injunction, “dramatise, dramatise.” Expression in the art of biography, as in all the other arts, individualises; in our master’s voice, “Expression is an activity of which there can be no technique” (my italics), hence it is not an activity in the service of truth and truthfulness, it is those qualities actualised, individualised.
Id. 235

 “A true consciousness is the confession to ourselves of our feelings; a false consciousness would be disowning them . . . soon we learn to bolster up this self-deceit by attributing the disowned experience to other people.” 59 Spinoza is his master here, for whom the problem of ethics was the mastery of one’s feelings such that passio (undergoing things) is transformed into actio (doing things). Once a passion is clearly understood it ceases to be a passion.
            Id. 235


Its [Principles of Art] tests of truthfulness in consciousness apply as much to politics and history as to art; if corruption of consciousness is widespread (it was then, it is now), “Intellect can build nothing firm. Moral ideals are castles in the air. Political and economic systems are mere cobwebs. Even common sanity and bodily health are no longer secure. But corruption of consciousness is the same thing as bad art.”
Id. 236-237, quoting Collingwood, Principles of Art [PA], 265 


[A]ny one who is reasonably well acquainted with historical work knows that there is no such thing as an historical fact which is not at the same time a complex of historical facts. Such a complex of historical facts I call a “constellation.” If every historical fact is a constellation, the answer to the question “What is it that such and such a person was absolutely presupposing in such and such a piece of thinking?” can never be given by reference to one single absolute presupposition, it must always be given by reference to a constellation of them.
Id. 260, quoting Collingwood, Essay on Metaphysics [EM], 66


[G]ood historians . . . ask questions which they see their way to answering. It was a correct understanding of the same truth that led Monsieur Hercule Poirot to pour scorn on the “human blood-hound” who crawls about the floor trying to collect everything, no matter what, which might conceivably turn out to be a clue [as police searches unfailingly do]; and to insist that the secret of detection was to use what, with possibly wearisome iteration, he called “the little grey cells.” You can’t collect your evidence before you begin thinking, he meant: because thinking means asking questions (logicians, please note), and nothing is evidence except in relation to some definite question.
Id. 266, quoting Collingwood, Principles of History [PH] 37


Action expresses itself in language (including gesture— Res Gestae as he says), and “the business of language is to reveal thought.” 37 For “That great and golden-mouthed philosopher, Samuel Alexander . . . wished philosophers to learn . . . the all-importance of time, ‘the timefulness of things.’
Id. 266, quoting PH, 56


[R]e-enactment (to use once again the confounded term left unused throughout The Principles of History) is a matter of matching thought to feeling and vice versa, each as formative as the other. The interpretative task is to bring the play of thought and feeling into an inferred pattern; the historian replays feeling and thought (much as a musician replays a score) within as large a comprehending framework of human sympathy as he or she is capable of.
Id. 267


What man, at any stage of history, thinks of himself as dealing with, when we say that he is dealing with nature, is never nature as it is in itself but always nature as at that stage of history he conceives it. All history is the history of thought: and wherever in history anything called nature appears, either this name stands not for nature in itself but for man’s thought about nature, or else history has forgotten that it has come of age, and has fallen back into its old state of pupilage to natural science.
Id. 268, quoting PH, 98


Collingwood mounts . . .  one of the most pungent of the critiques of modern utilitarianism, pursuing the infinite regress of the utility test (this is useful because it leads to that which is useful, which leads to that which is useful . . . and so on). 60 Sooner or later, something is worthwhile for its own sake.
Id. 281


[H]is firm little lesson to his shipmate students brings out happily for my purposes just why and how the story of a thinker’s thought may be read in his brief friendship with an Orthodox priest to whom he spoke classical Greek, and in his admonitions to the young men— admonitions that Ruskin and T. S. Eliot would have endorsed— to dissolve secularism and utilitarianism into a love of the past -in-the-present and to envision the common good as a web of many significances.
            Id. 281


Probably there is never any point in contriving a perfect projection of the order of the books for the sake of biographical shapeliness. The unity he sought and I aim to reconstruct is the unity of his character in life and work, its style (in Nietzsche’s strong sense), and that way of thinking and feeling he worked at constructing on the page, and which could then bring together the man and his history such that each comprehended the other. It is a colossal ambition, of course, and in the end it breaks your heart. But not always the spirit. If that survives, the work and the man who made it live on in the lives and thought of those who follow. Which strong-sounding chord is not a finale; it merely returns us to that crux in the bequest of his thinking that he called “re-enactment”: the re-enacting of past thoughts (in this case his) in a different present. A properly historical biography will so re-enact the thoughts that we understand what he meant then, when he said it; thereafter the right biography will make it possible to turn those thoughts, resurrected from so different a moment, into something practical and rational now.
            Id. 284


Re-enactment is a matter of understanding the conventions of an historical argument in such a way as to recover the intentions of the writer. Those intentions will be apparent and re-creatable insofar as the writer writes well; well-made art, whether in prose, paint, or music, speaks with certitude.
            Id. 286-287


The past makes the present. As Louis Mink puts it in a neat little saw, we must understand backwards in order to think [or plan] forwards. Re-enactment is no more than thinking what has been thought exactly as it was thought then, so that the historical past can yield its lessons of difference, contrast, comparison, and does so as its differently ground optics show us contrastive and contradictory signification. Hobbes’s liberty is not ours, nor Cromwell’s pacification, whether of the Irish or the Levellers. Yet both have deposited their residue in our political formation. Our applications of the science of human affairs starts with a sufficiency of these reenactments, faithfully performed. This is the first form of the new science, history its content. Of itself, of course, it runs practice into theory. For history, the paramount form of theoretical knowledge, teaches understanding of how matters came to be the way they are. Duty, its corollary as dominant form of practical knowledge, teaches us freely to will what must be done.
Id. 287


But it may be doubted whether the author of The Essay on Metaphysics and New Leviathan would have so disapproved of the Philosophical Investigations. They shared a joint conviction that propositions have no common essence and doubted that truth is a correspondence between proposition and fact. They were at one in rejecting an account of knowledge as a blank apprehension of the facts . They both argued that inner states were only knowable, by oneself and others, by the making of outer expression. And they both thought that to demand something called “proof” for everything one believes is to sentence oneself to sterility.
            Id. 295-296


“A man’s duty on a given occasion is the act which for him is both possible and necessary: the act which at that moment character and circumstance combine to make it inevitable , if he has a free will, that he should freely will to do.”
Id. 298-299, quoting Collingwood, New Leviathan [NL], 124


To have rendered these things on the page is not to have expounded a thinker’s thoughts but to have dramatised a life. A biography— this biography—then attains the condition of art and further aspires to the condition of history . It is not likely that I have brought this off, but this is my ambition.
            Id. 313


In unacknowledged tandem with Wittgenstein, John Austin was, as his famous book puts it, teaching How to Do Things with Words, and dividing the practices (rather than the functions) of language into three: the locutionary (propositional), perlocutionary (performative), and illocutionary (effective).
            Id. 319


Adding J. L. Austin to Collingwood, [Quentin Skinner] wished to pursue not only what they said, but what they were doing as they said it. Were they persuading, affirming, subverting, or revising, when they rehearsed their doctrines to decidedly touchy and unpredictable princes? Hobbes’s truculence, More’s innocence, Machiavelli’s moral revisionism were all intentional devices purporting to win the intellectual day for their side. This goes deep. For once you radically historicise author and argument in this way, you hit hard against their sheer incommensurability with contemporary certainties about what really matters. Skinner returns to the arguments of the past in order to bring back to the present disconcerting truths (true, that is, as being part of a factual historical record) about the way, for example, people in the Italian city-states of the early Renaissance thought about what is right rather than about rights, about the common good rather than private pleasure, about their duty to maintain the conditions of liberty rather than about their licence to do what they liked.
            Id. 335